Geronimo Head

Geronimo Head 3509′


Total Time: 4:45

Roundtrip Mileage: 5.2

Elevation Gain: 2350′

Crux: Class II

Trailhead: Tortilla Flat, full services

Geronimo Head is a small summit in the northwestern Superstitions. Located just above Tortilla Flats, the cliffs of the western face drop dramatically into La Barge Canyon. I first noticed Geronimo Head during a climb of Battleship Mountain (still one of my favorite summits in the range), staring up at the volcanic cliffs from the canyon below. I was looking for an easy-moderate outing after a very late start in the day, and thought I could climb Geronimo Head and Malapais Mountain, located a bit further to the south, in about 6 hours. I left Phoenix and got stuck behind a half dozen RVs on the curvy road into the Superstitions, not getting to Tortilla Flat until a little after noon. Geronimo Head was directly above, blocked from view by some upper cliff bands. I had read a use trail could be found from the back lot of Tortilla Flat, and I found the path in question at the far east end of the upper parking lot, directly across from a gate warning against trespassing. The trail initially headed east above Mesquite Creek (flowing from the recent rains) and across some brush and slabs to gain a shallow ridge before ascending more aggressively.

Mesquite Creek.

As I left the honky-tonk music and wild west gunfights of Tortilla Flat behind me, the trail quickly faded into the brush and loose rock of the north slopes of Geronimo Head. The terrain was deceptively complex, with rock spires and washes lost between the lines of the topo map. As I climbed I aimed for my first objective, a chimney- shaped rock several hundred feet above Tortilla Flat. The terrain became looser near the base of the rock spire, and I used the brush to gain traction and reach the saddle between the rock and rock fin continuing south. While it was tempting to climb the rock fin directly, it looked like I could easily find myself stranded on top, and instead traversed to the right (east) and into a broad bowl.

Looking down to Tortilla Flat and Canyon Lake.

The loose terrain improved and transitioned to volcanic slabs, and I started to find the occasional cairn and very faint use trail. I lost it a number of times, but would eventually stumble on it again. Working across the bowl, the second landmark is to aim for a high saddle formed by 3267′ and a small detached rock spire. The number of cairns increased the closer I drew to the saddle, with the largest at the saddle itself. Looking down the other side was both disorienting and disheartening, with a steep drop into a drainage below.

Backlit picture from the saddle with a descent to reach the main drainage of the summit. Route ascends the left gully.

Cliffs made staying high dangerous if not impossible, so I followed the use trail and descended about 100′ before taking the left of two narrow gullies, guarded by several trees and the start of the brush that would plague me the rest of the day. Weaving in an out of a small drainage at the top of the gully, I reached the main drainage that splits the summits of Geronimo Head, which form a C shape around the wash. The named summit is the lower summit to the west at the top of the cliff bands. The higher summit was near the apex of the ‘C’, and my plan was to tag the highpoint, then continue on to Malapais. The earlier stretches of the drainage were comparatively pleasant- not too much brush with small pools of water from recent rains.

Water in the drainage.

Some rough beta I had on the route suggested taking a split off to the left and up to the summit, but as the brush in the drainage started to increase, I ran into my old friend- locust brush. As more and more thorns pulled at my pants, I bailed out of the drainage and headed up the slopes above to the ridgeline leading to the summit. This was dramatically easier, and I worked up the slopes to the ridge, with views opening up across the range to the east. As I neared the highpoint, I was surprised to see how far Malapais Mountain looked. I was expecting to find a shallow saddle connecting the two summits, yet as I reached 3509′, I was faced with a 500′ drop to a 1200′ ascent.

Panorama with Tortilla Mountain on the distant left, Malapais right of center.
Zoom to Tortilla Mountain.

I was two hours into the hike, and assuming two hours back to the car from this point, that left me with two hours of daylight for 4 miles and over 3000′ of elevation change, all of it cross-country and typical slow Superstition brush. My late start had come back to haunt me. I hated to cut the hike so short, so I switched to Plan B- a traverse around the rim of Geronimo Head for a good look into La Barge Canyon before dropping back into the drainage and on to the car. Setting off around the rim from 3509′, I hit the true highest point to the SW, for some reason unlabeled on the map, but clearly higher by line-of-sight. I left a summit register at the highpoint and continued to the SW up and over several false summits to the named summit of Geronimo Head at 3479′. The views at the named peak were better than at the highpoint, with views straight into La Barge Canyon and Battleship Mountain, the summit that had originally inspired the day’s adventure. Weaver’s Needle towered to the south and the Flatiron stood immediately west.

South to Weaver’s Needle.
Zoom to Canyon Lake.

Tagging the named point added little mileage in the end, so I took my time with a break at the summit before dropping back into the drainage directly from above. The upper portion of the drainage was harmless enough, even a bit sandy. But this was quickly overtaken by brush and thorns, and I found myself cheating onto the slopes above to avoid the locust brush. As I neared the small junction in the drainage, the brush became particularly thick and a good deal of thrashing and cursing was required to overcome it. The thorn-ed brush began to subside as I descended and I picked the use trail back up near the top of the paired gullies from the ascent.

Looking back at the ascent saddle from the top of the paired gullies.

Back on a crude trail, my speed improved, and I dropped down the short gully and back up to the notch, Tortilla Flat back in view. A long descending traverse brought me back to the Chimney-shaped rock, but I unfortunately lost the trail early on, cross-country being unavoidable on this rarely traveled peak. I tried to find an easier line of descent from the steep shale around Chimney rock, but mostly hopped from patch of grass to patch of grass to maintain traction until the steepness improved. I reached the rock slabs above Tortilla Flat and from there, it was a short cross country hike back to the car. I stopped in to Tortilla Flat for their famous Prickly Pear ice cream, but opted for the Prickly Pear soda instead and headed NW on Route 88 back to Phoenix after what would probably be one of my last trips into the Superstitions before the summer heat ramps up.

Leave a Reply